US 2018 Midterm Elections: Why are the results so close and mixed?
For most of 2018, the talk was there would be a Blue Democratic wave, sweeping the Democrats into power in both chambers of Congress. President Trump had unusually low approval rates over the last two years on average getting less than 40 percent approval ratings according to Gallup. Recently, his ratings recovered. But even so, presidents with approval ratings of 44 percent, as it has lately been for President Trump, would expect to get sizeable losses in the House of Representatives and lose some Senate seats too. Presidents with similar ratings at the time of his first mid-term such as Bill Clinton lost 54 House seats in the 1994 elections. Similarly, Barack Obama lost 63 House seats in 2010 as people voiced their frustration with the slow economic recovery.
In the event, there has been no Blue Democratic wave, but perhaps a ripple. With all the controversy about Mr Trump, the Republican loss of 30 seats is far less than the losses under Presidents Clinton or Obama in the first term midterms. For the first hour or two on Tuesday evening it even seemed that the House was also up for grabs as Republicans won some big victories while Democratic victories slowly trickled in. But then the momentum shifted back to the Democrats. Finally, most unusually, President Trump's party has managed to gain Senate seats in his midterms—only the third President to do so in the last 100 years.
So why have the elections results been so close and mixed?
There are several explanations. As election day neared, hopes for even a Senate Democratic victory started rising as the polls became tantalisingly close in quite a few seats. But the odds against that happening were always large. Under US rules, only one-third of the senators are up for election in any given year. As it happened this year, it was 26 Democratic senators who were running to defend their seats while only 9 Republicans were doing so. Moreover, many of the Democratic Senators were defending their seats in states that had voted for President Trump. In such a scenario, losing two to four Senate seats should not be a surprise unless there was indeed a Blue wave of Democratic turnout as some hoped.
But aside from this structural obstacle, a few other factors made the race closer than expected.
First, the acrimonious fight over Justice Kavanaugh's nomination to the Supreme Court clarified to the Republican base how critical would be the Senate's role in shaping Supreme Court decisions over many decades. The Kavanaugh hearings fired up Republican voters and sharply increased turnout.
Second, this incident helped to nationalise the midterm elections. But President Trump also played a leading role here. Usually, presidents do not figure significantly in the first midterm and voters vote the opposition into power precisely to prevent a one-party rule. In this election, however, Mr Trump waged an energetic, no holds barred campaign holding no less than 34 election gatherings in the last few weeks to make this election a referendum about him. The central weapon in his politics was the fear he spread about the "invasion" of thousands of migrants with "leprosy", hidden Middle Easterners, Hispanic "breeders" and gang members marching from Central America to the US With dramatic flourish, thousands of US Army troops were ordered to the border to stop this invasion. As it happened, after election day the migrant army disappeared from the news.
Third, house races have been "gerrymandered" by mostly Republican but also Democratic state governments over the last few years. Gerrymandering means that very strange-looking election districts have been drawn up, with the help of high-powered computers no less, in such a way to confine the opposition to only a few constituencies. That way the rule of the incumbents could be assured. These practices in mostly Republican but also Democratic states are under court challenge now.
Finally, perhaps most important, the Democrats were again sleeping on the message wheel. That is, they were running without clear themes except that they were anti-Trump. But being anti-something is almost never enough to win. But even worse, some far-left elements had floated absurd ideas to abolish the Immigration and Customs Enforcement department that laid them open to the charge of advocating open borders, rightly an anathema to almost all Americans. The one decisive exception to the lack of themes was their support for healthcare and insurance for all, a stance overwhelmingly critical for the voters. Eight years after the Affordable Care Act became law and after more than 60 motions by Republicans to repeal it, people unhesitatingly support Obamacare.
To the economist in me, it is puzzling why the Democrats did not take the offensive on economic issues. It should not have been difficult to rub in the point that the Republicans have passed highly unequal and unpopular tax cuts. They could have also noted that last time a Republican government recklessly cut taxes for the rich and blindly deregulated Wall Street in the 2000s, it seemed to create growth for a brief just as it does today. But after that, these policies caused the economy to crash and create the most significant economic crisis in the US since the Great Depression. Eight million Americans lost their jobs as unemployment rate reached 10 percent; nearly three million people lost their homes while homeowners lost USD 10 trillion in home value; the national income fell by USD 10 trillion. America's three giant car manufacturers nearly went bankrupt.
The Democrats could have pointed out that it was President Obama's policies that helped the economy to recover from the crash and create the long recovery that still goes on. They could have noted that the today's Republican policies are being even more reckless. Their tax cuts have given away nearly a trillion and a half dollars, most of it to the rich over the next ten years, when these funds were urgently needed to pay for improving infrastructure, schools, health care, and creating jobs. Democrats could have appealed to the sound fiscal instincts of Americans that the Republican tax cuts have busted the budget, creating trillion-dollar deficits, a Government debt that will rise to USD 30 trillion in the next ten years, and when interest payments on the debt alone will double to USD 1 trillion.
The Democrats could have also noted that Republican policies instead of reducing trade deficits, are increasing it, and that trade wars are hurting workers' jobs and farmers' incomes and uniting countries around the world against the US. Tariffs may end up destroying hundreds of thousands of jobs if trade wars are fully unleashed. American soybean farmers are already feeling the pain and will lose billions of dollars in incomes due to tariffs imposed by China. Middle-class American consumers will be hurt across the board as they pay billions of dollars more for goods as tariffs raise prices for products.
Economics stories are complicated and not easily reduced to soundbites. Perhaps for this and others reason, the Democrats were deafeningly silent. But most American voters intuitively understand the points above—that their healthcare was under threat and that a massive transfer to the rich has taken place under the Trump tax cuts. This is the reason weeks before the election, President Trump floated the idea of another tax cut, this time for the middle class, an idea that went nowhere. Recognising the unpopularity of their tax cuts, Republicans became shy about economics.
But, there was little reason for the Democrats to have been so. Democrats must have a narrative about the economy, about how they plan to grow the economy and make growth more equal. About how they plan to invest in America's deteriorating infrastructure and in jobs, training, and education for Americans so that that middle- and working-class earnings that have been flat for 30 years, in real terms, start rising again. They can talk about providing tax benefits for the middle class and workers, for childcare, lower prices of drugs, and housing. They also need to bite the bullet and campaign furiously against assault weapons and for common sense gun control, public safety, and the lives of school children. They will also need to have clearer, more hard-headed views about immigration. Managed properly, immigration helps a country's economy as it has done so spectacularly in the United States. But it has to be managed and borders must be protected. Democrats must show that they have a programme to bring growth and good jobs to create prosperity and economic security for all Americans and not only for the wealthy.
Read the first part of this analysis
Dr Ahmad Ahsan is Director of Policy Research Institute, and former Dhaka University faculty member and World Bank economist.